Imports come as Washington rushes to respond to the shortage of infant formula that has left bare shelves and parents struggling to find food for babies and children with special dietary needs. The FDA has been sharply criticized for failing to avert the shortage.
“Steps like the one the agency is taking today mean that more infant formula will be available to parents and caregivers in the weeks and months to come. We won’t stop until our shelves are filled with safe and nutritious infant formula.” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf.
At the same time, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra has invoked the Defense Production Act for the third time in less than a week, this time to ensure that agribusiness giant Cargill, the largest privately held company in the United States , prioritize the supply of raw materials to formula milk producers over other food companies.
Operation Fly Formula’s primary logistics control exits HHS, with daily communications with the White House, FDA, Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, and other agencies. According to HHS officials, the first priority is identifying special formulas for infants and others with rare metabolic disorders, which will be distributed primarily, once in the United States, through medical channels such as pediatric hospitals and pediatric practices. The agency is prioritizing products from English-speaking countries to minimize the amount of relabeling and repackaging that needs to be done.
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The Biden administration has already completed two flights, with the first one bringing 132 pallets of Nestlé’s Alfamino formulas from Europe to Indianapolis. The second sent 114 pallets of Gerber products to Washington Dulles International Airport. Together, they represented the equivalent of approximately 1.5 million eight-ounce bottles of infant formula.
Senior HHS officials say they do not yet know how many flights will be scheduled to bring the formula from overseas, and that much of that hinges on measurable needs, out-of-stock levels in stores, and flexibility the FDA is offering manufacturers. The federal government’s role in the operation is to accelerate the introduction of the formula in the country, but it is not designed to take over the entire distribution channel. The formula will be distributed through existing channels (retail stores, health care providers and as part of the benefits associated with the food assistance program called WIC), but officials said efforts will be made to ensure that all states and territories of the United States have equal access.
Biden first invoked the Defense Production Act on May 18 to address the nationwide shortage of infant formula caused by the recall and closure of the country’s largest infant formula plant, accelerating domestic infant formula production and loosening the restrictions that prevented most foreign brands of infant formula from being sold domestically.
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Becerra went on Sunday, calling on the DPA to empower manufacturers Abbott Nutrition and Mead Johnson to more easily get their hands on the raw materials they need to accelerate formula production. This third invocation aims more exactly to drive Cargill – which makes corn by-products, sweeteners, and formula essential oils – to rate its formula customers above others.
“The two DPA priority assessments we issued earlier are already having a positive impact on overall production, which is why we will continue to leverage the DPA when we believe it will help mitigate the current shortage,” said Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary of HHS for preparation and response.
The efforts do not appear to have had any measurable effect on infant formula supplies in grocery stores, in part because most of the fresh formula is sent to pediatricians and hospitals. According to data research firm IRI, the latest inventory figure for the week ending May 15, the most recent week for which there is data, store shelves nationwide were 78.52% full. down from 79.15% the previous week. In states like Kansas, Arkansas, and Minnesota, store inventory levels are 10% lower than they are.